The Science of Psychology: An Overview

Psychology is the academic, scientific and professional study of human behavior and the mind. Formal psychological inquiry can be traced to as early as the fourth century B.C., when the Greek physician Hippocrates posited that mental disorders are of a physical origin rather than a divine one. Rooted in both philosophical and biological thought, psychology came into its own as a distinct science in the 1870s. Since that time, the field has grown immensely in both scope and influence. Today, psychology is a highly respected and diverse field.

Wilhelm Wundt and the Establishment of Psychology as a Distinct Science

In 1874, the German physician Wilhelm Wundt published Principles of Physiological Psychology. This publication foreshadowed the coming emergence of psychology as its own science distinct from biology. In 1879, Wundt established the first experimental laboratory for the study of psychological processes in Leipzig, Germany. This marked psychology’s beginnings as its own area of scientific inquiry.


Wundt’s work has been associated with the early psychological school of Structuralism. Structuralism sought to break complex mental processes down to their basic elemental components for the purposes of observation. The school employed a technique it called introspection to observe mental responses to the controlled introduction of certain stimuli. The Structuralist school was named and developed by Wundt’s student Edward B. Tichener who would diverge considerably from his teacher’s ideas.


Functionalism represents the first reaction against the tenets of Structuralism. Functionalist thought was heavily influenced by the work of William James and Charles Darwin. Functionalists sought to accurately systematize mental processes rather than merely identify and catalog them as the Structuralists had. Functionalist thought focused on the purposes of the various mental processes and emphasized individual differences rather than universalism. The two schools were rarely able to reach agreement on their basic approaches, and professional rivalry characterized their coexistence for decades.


Around the turn of the 20th century, the ideas of the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud began to take hold supplanting both Structuralism and Functionalism at the forefront of psychological theory. Freud’s school of Psychoanalysis relied heavily on the construct of the unconscious mind. Freud held that the unconscious mind is responsible for all human behavior. He subdivided the unconscious mind into the id, the ego and the superego assigning specific mental functions to each of these sub-constructs. Freud’s thought was adopted and expanded upon by many important psychological thinkers most notably the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.


In the early 20th century, John B. Watson established the Behaviorist school partially as a reaction to the dominance of Psychoanalysis in contemporary psychology. Behaviorism focused on measurable human behavior and eschewed unobservable internal processes. The Behaviorists held that human response to stimuli can be trained to be predictable through techniques of conditioning. Influenced by Ivan Pavlov’s celebrated experiments on the salivary responses of dogs, this school was famously championed by B.F. Skinner and others.

Humanistic Psychology

In the mid-20th century, psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers led the development of a new school of psychological thought. The Humanistic Psychology movement held that both Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism unnecessarily mechanize human mental processes and ignore the impact of free will. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs formulates the basic Humanist view that people move toward a state of self-actualization.

Modern Psychology

While modern psychology incorporates elements of all of the historical schools, the tendency is toward eclecticism. It is understood that the nature of the mind yields a subject that is resistant to controlled study. Further, as long as the mind continues to evolve, psychology can only hope to, at best, remain an incomplete science. While detractors might claim this as a reason to dismiss its scientific validity, a more optimistic interpretation reveals a science with unlimited potential to grow. The school of thought can then be broken down and shared with the world better help and influence generations with different resources. For example, anger management psychologists can help individuals to break down the different layers of the mind to help them move forward in a positive direction.